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Tasting the 1982 and 2005 St-Emilions

What a difference 23 years can make. Tasting the stellar 1982 and 2005 St-Emilions side by side we found a remarkable contrast.

When Decanter’s consultant editor Steven Spurrier, contributing editor Stephen Brook and contributor Michael Schuster – all renowned tasters – sat down to talk over our comparative tasting of 1982 and 2005 St-Emilion Premiers Grands Crus Classés, the first thing they all alluded to was the leap in quality the 2005s represent.

Two years ago, when French newspaper Le Figaro put 2006 on a par with the 1982 vintage, I phoned Spurrier for comment, believing he would belittle the claim. Yet I was told the opposite – that 2006 was a better vintage. The reason? ‘Winemaking in Bordeaux is twice as good as it was back then,’ he said. This tasting underlined his view.

‘I was shocked by the 1982s,’ said Brook. ‘I knew they were not going to be fabulous, but I thought they would be better than what they were – over the hill and in decline.’ All three experts, while admitting this was a ‘wonderful, fascinating’ tasting, were struck by the increase in quality in the younger wines – Spurrier even argued that the 2005 vintage was ‘200% better’.

So while the 1982s are on their way down after 23 years, do the ’05s have a long life ahead? ‘Unquestionably’, said Spurrier. This was partly due to the nature of St-Emilion 30 years ago, added Schuster. Winemakers and consumers would have had a different concept of what St-Emilion was back then. ‘One thought of it as a lighter, more flowing style,’ he said. ‘You can taste that, and back then they weren’t expected to last 25 years or more.’

This was where the wines differed from their Left Bank peers. With, in Schuster’s words, ‘a lot more matter’ and, in Spurrier’s, ‘a lot more money’, the Médoc 82s most likely still have further to go (Brook casually mentioned that he had been drinking them the previous evening) and anyone holding onto them need not worry. By contrast, advice on the Right Bank 82s was definitive: ‘I wouldn’t keep any of them to age any longer,’ said Schuster.

Patience rewarded the 2005 vintage threw up a few contentious points. While most of the wines from this stellar vintage were roundly praised by the panel, stylistic differences will not endear them to everyone.

Brook alluded to the perennial problem of ‘lighter wines’ – wines that do not show well at early tastings, apparently lacking the vigour and power of their peers, but that age very well. ‘There’s always that mystery of the wines that seem a lot lighter – such as Magdelaine or Belair, [which did not submit its wines for this tasting] – and never show well at an early stage.’

As long-time buyers of Bordeaux will understand, there is little reason for despair in owning these ‘lighter’ wines. ‘In some vintages, but not all, they come round 20 years later, so you’ve got to have patience – it should be rewarded,’ said Brook, who noted that the 1982 Magdelaine was not tiring. He felt, though, that tasters ‘probably give lighter wines lower scores, simply because they aren’t as dazzling and bold as the big, ripe, extracted styles’.

It was these bigger wines that impressed the panel. Château Pavie reinforced its credentials as one of the great wines of 2005, also triumphing at the wine trade’s informal Southwold tasting of the 2005s in January. (It did not submit its 1982 because of subsequent stylistic differences: Gérard Perse bought the estate from the Valette family in 1998.)

But while powerful, ripe 2005s such as Pavie came top of the pile here, they will not be to everyone’s taste. ‘There are a few wines that I have marked with exactly the same score, in completely different styles. One I would like to buy to keep and drink, and the other is simply not for me – even though I can see it’s a good wine,’ explained Schuster.

Modern times

Stylistically, the 2005s might be different, said the tasters, but there is no doubting their provenance. When our experts were asked whether the young wines maintained their typicity, Schuster was quick to respond. ‘If we are talking about typicity as being typical of St-Emilion, I’m not sure that was really the issue,’ he said. ‘It’s much more, “would I enjoy drinking this wine?”’ Brook added. ‘The modern-style wines offered drinkability now, whereas the lighter-style 2005s weren’t that impressive today. But I couldn’t let that influence my scores – they will be lovely in 20 years.’

The modern style ultimately triumphed but Spurrier emphasised that the term ‘modern’ should not be seen as a negative – consumers should not be frightened by them. ‘They are modern; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be in the flow. The modern style of St-Emilion is definitely the better style,’ he said.

Many people in the wine world often say that little has changed – sometimes with good reason. In August 1983, Decanter devoted six pages to a report on the 1982 vintage with editor Colin Parnell examining the grumbles of wine merchants, and David Peppercorn MW lamenting the ‘rarely seen’ alcohol levels of 12% and praising the ‘great investment’ made in the cellars.

In fact, despite the frequent complaints of high prices and high alcohol in Bordeaux of late, this comparative tasting served as a reminder that, qualitatively at least, we’ve never had it so good.

Written by Oliver Styles

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